Perspective on the Planning Commission’s DRAFT of the Comp Plan Update

Jon Quitslund

The complete text of the ten Elements of the updated Comprehensive Plan is now available on the COBI website. This DRAFT may be modified by the Planning Commission in response to comments in the Public Hearings on September 17 and 22 (with provisions for subsequent comments in writing), before the package is sent forward to the City Council for further deliberation and final action.

I feel good about what we’re sending forward, and I don’t think it needs much more work. What the Update needs most at this point is exposure to public scrutiny and discussion. Without a broad understanding of the policies that are set forth in the Comp Plan, it can’t be implemented effectively.

In recent postings, I have provided perspective on current developments in planning for the future of Bainbridge Island by recalling some things that I wrote several years ago. This time, I’ll quote from a piece I unearthed recently, carrying the date of May 31, 2007.

I was writing in response to contention within the City Council, and I led off with a line spoken by Tommy Lee Jones, who played a hard-bitten sheriff in the movie adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men: “If this ain’t the mess, it’ll do until the mess gets here.”

Maybe you weren’t here in 2007, or you don’t remember the shape we were in. The real estate bubble hadn’t burst and the economic collapse of 2008 was on nobody’s radar, but COBI was in disarray. My point, in what I want to say now, is that we’re in much better shape now, and not just because the local economy has revived.

My occasion for writing what I did in 2007 was a Council meeting in which two ambitious planning efforts were discussed. Both were received unkindly, because both efforts were perceived as initiatives of Mayor Kordonowy and her administration, which some members of the Council were predisposed to regard as misguided.

Need I say that I was on the side of the Mayor and administration? (So were some members of the Council, but not enough to carry the day.) The systemic dysfunction could only be cured by changing to our current Council / City Manager system, which now, after some instability, is working quite well.

At the time of the meeting back in May of 2007, the long and fractious planning process for Winslow Tomorrow had come to a head and the Council had decisions to make. Another planning exercise, involving two years of work by citizens in the 2025 Growth Advisory Committee, had produced a final report: its aim was to find ways, through an Island-wide strategy, to accommodate the population growth expected by the year 2025.

I was only on the sidelines of the Winslow Tomorrow project, but I’m proud to have been a member of the 2025 group, in which I learned a lot that has been applicable to the Comprehensive Plan update. Many of the ideas in the 2025 Report have made their way into the Comp Plan’s goals and policies – “ideas whose time has come.”

The most ambitious features of the Winslow Tomorrow plans were left behind, and other plans were scaled down and postponed, but thanks to that process, Winslow Way has now been greatly improved, both on its surface and in all the infrastructure underground. And the work now being done in and around Waterfront Park accomplishes another part of the Winslow Tomorrow vision.

The 2025 Committee’s recommendations were never taken very seriously by the City Council back in 2007: like many other studies, the Report was shelved, soon forgotten even by the leadership and staff in Planning and Community Development, and only recently brought back into the light.

Let me say a little more about the mess we used to be in, because that history still hangs over us. The City government is in much better shape – better than most people realize. Attitudes of impatience, distrust, and ‘what d’you expect?’ are still prevalent. The people in charge and the employees who have the most immediate contact with citizens still have a lot to prove.

In the first paragraph of what I wrote back in the summer of 2007, here’s how I described what was bothering me: “the mind-boggling meeting of obvious, unavoidable change and incoherent, mostly behind-the-scenes efforts to manage what’s happening, or at least to influence events for the benefit of one set of interests.” That statement is itself a muddle; I suppose I myself was up to my knees in the confusion. I know I was discouraged and angry. A couple of paragraphs in, I wrote, “I find reason to believe [the mess] can be managed.” Well, it wasn’t, and I was a fool to believe it could be.

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I’ve said more than once that COBI is in better shape now; events could prove me wrong. Most citizens are indifferent, skeptical, or downright hostile to what goes on in City Hall. Read letters to the editor in random issues of the Bainbridge Island Review, and it may seem that nothing has changed: no good idea goes unchallenged. I guess I should be apprehensive about what lies ahead during citizens’ responses to the Comprehensive Plan and Council deliberations.

But my experience during two years of Planning Commission work on the update gives me some confidence. Citizens’ comments during the update, in person and via email, were sometimes critical, but constructively so. Council members were interested; the Council as a group was kept informed and they provided feedback. As a whole, the Planning Commission took pains to get things right.

There were times when I wished for more involvement on the part of people whose lives and livelihoods may be directly affected by the success or failure of policies advanced in the Comprehensive Plan. For instance: in the Economic element we did our best to understand problems and envision a stronger, more diverse local economy, but we did so without much help from the business community.

My greatest disappointment – should I call it frustration, or bafflement? – arose from the absence of interest in the Comprehensive Plan on the part of developers, builders, and real estate interests. (Some of the Island’s many architects were involved, and I expect their engagement to continue.) What are the other professionals in the development and real estate industries thinking?

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Goals and policies put forward in the Land Use, Environmental, Economic, and Housing elements initiate some broad and deep changes in the forms that residential and commercial development will take in our community’s future. I think there’s a general agreement that ‘market forces,’ relatively unconstrained and in some respects aided by public policies, have been unkind, unsupportive of the common good here on Bainbridge. Maybe we can also agree that deep changes in the status quo are due, and overdue. Whether we can agree on the agenda for change presented in the Comp Plan update remains to be seen.

I, for one, am eager to find out. Stay tuned.

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